By Stewart Moses (NSWRL.com.au)
The Illawarra Cutters were 22-18 winners over the Penrith Panthers at Pepper Stadium, Penrith on Saturday.
The Cutters, led by halves Drew Hutchison and Shaun Nona, who between them had a hand in three of Illawarra’s four tries, overcame the withdrawals of experienced NRL players Tim Lafai and Josh McCrone to withstand a late Penrith fightback to record two very important competition points.
The Panthers themselves were boosted by the late inclusion of Dylan Edwards and Will Smith but lost the latter for virtually the entire match after injuring his leg in the very set of the game.
Early errors from the Panthers in the opening minutes enabled the Cutters to open the scoring in the seventh minute when Drew Hutchison kicked behind the line for Taane Milne to ground the ball in the in-goal and score and with Nona’s conversion from out wide, Illawarra led 6-0.
Further errors from the Panthers allowed the Cutters to extend their lead in the 18th minute when Nona and Hutchison combined to put winger Izaac Thompson over in the corner to lead 10-0.
Both sides were guilty of making numerous errors but Illawarra could have extended the lead when a well weighted kick was unable to be dived on by Levi Dodd.
The Cutters’ near-miss sparked Penrith into action in the very next set.
Zach Dockar-Clay opened Penrith’s account after interchange forward Paea Pua put the halfback into a yawning gap, going on a 30 metre run to beat fullback Adam Quinlan to score out wide.
The Panthers then capitalised on a mistake at the kick-off to score again through Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and with the goal duly converted by the competition’s leading point-scorer Josh Hall, Penrith suddenly had an unlikely 12-10 lead.
The Panthers would have gone into the sheds at half-time feeling pretty good about themselves having extended the lead to four courtesy of a Josh Hall penalty goal from 15 metres out.
But just as they did in the first half, the Cutters started the stronger in the second to regain the lead after 47 minutes when interchange forward Jay Gallagher barged through some soft Penrith defence to score next to the posts.
Eight minutes later the Cutters took advantage of some repeat sets inside the Penrith 20 to further extend their lead when Nona cut back to the blindside to put back-rower Dumanis Lui over from close range and with the conversion from out wide, led 22-14.
Just as the Cutters were gaining the upper hands over their opponents, Illawarra suffered a setback when Blake Wallace (leg) was forced out of the game.
Sensing the Cutters were there for the taking, Penrith set up a grandstand finish with ten minutes remaining when slick hands saw play shift left before centre George Jennings sliced through to score out wide to reduce the gap to just four points.
But it wasn’t to be for Penrith as the Cutters withstood the Panthers’ late charge to run out deserved winners 22-18 to remain in second position after 19 rounds.
Illawarra Cutters 22. Tries: Milne, Thompson, Lui, Gallagher. Goals: Dodd (3/4).
Penrith Panthers 18. Tries: Dockar-Clay, Watene-Zelezniak, Jennings. Goals: Hall (3/3).